Critical Review of Adorno & Horkheimer's "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception"

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Failure of the Age of Enlightenment, as perceived by Adorno & Horkheimer (1972) gave birth to their ‘Mass Deception’ Culture theory. They stated that mass-produced entertainment has been designed to appeal onto vast audiences. The outcome of this results in both – the intellectual stimulation of high art, and the basic release of low art.

Lears, (1985) expanded Gramsci’s concept, and believed that, to achieve cultural hegemony, the leaders of a historical bloc must develop a world view that appeals to a wide range of other groups within the society, and they must be able to claim with at least some plausibility that their particular interests are those of society at large.

Routledge took a fresh new look on Adorno’s ‘Cultural Industry Reconsidered’ in 1991, wherein the expression "mass culture" gets replaced with "culture industry". Although Adorno's position may seem outdated, yet his point of view remains valid, as even today, mass culture trades in illusions, make beliefs, and is categorized upon economic conditions.

In this academic paper, a critical review has been attempted on the above three articles, with an objective of understanding the impact of their magnum works through a timeline of historical progression in current context.

These essays do have a direct impact on the advent of New Media Technologies and on convergence culture. An account of Intellectual historian Jason Josephson-Storm’s ‘Myth of Disenchantment’ (2017) has also been studied, which is a revisit on the failure of enlightenment, in the modern canvas of mass media.

  Key words: Culture Industry, Mass Deception, Cultural Hegemony, New Media, Convergence

Critical Review of Three Articles

The politics, philosophy, science and communications of “long-18th

century” (1685-1815) is referred as the Age of Reason, or simply put – the Age of Enlightenment. During this period, thinkers in Britain, France and Europe produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions; all inspired by Enlightenment ideals, through its rise and decline.

In critical review of three articles, namely – Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T., The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1972); Routledge, The Culture Industry Reconsidered, (1991); and Jackson Lears, T. J, The Concept of Cultural Hegemony (1985) -- an attempt has been made to understand their impact, usefulness to media studies, relevance yesterday and today; and ultimately their application, in today’s media audience.

Origin of concept “Culture Industry” – a quick recap

The book “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, especially the chapter on The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, (1944, revised ed 1947), by Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, explores the socio-psychological status quo of social domination, justifying the failure of the Age of Enlightenment. They proposed that popular culture behaves like a factory, producing standardized cultural goods—films, radio programs, magazines, etc.—which are tools for rendering a ‘passive’ mass society.

Intellectual historian Jason Josephson-Storm further argued that there is a myth of disenchants. A blur in early modern ideas of Humanities and natural sciences makes it hard to circumscribe a Scientific Revolution (Myth of Disenchantment, 2017).

Parallel Era of selected Media Communication Theories

Mass media in 1940s and 1950s were perceived as a powerful influence on behavior change. The media (magic gun) fired the message directly into audience head, causing instant reaction from them without any hesitation (Magic Bullet Theory). The media (needle) injected the message into audience mind and caused passive changes in audience behavior and psyche (Hypodermic Needle Theory). The "magic bullet" and "hypodermic needle" models originate from Harold Lasswell's 1927 book, Propaganda Technique in the World War.

Impact of the Concept of Mass Deception

The concept of mass deception (Adorno, 1972) affects all branches of media application, and highlights the products which are tailored for consumption by masses. This determines the nature of that consumption, and illuminates the plan on which this information dissemination takes place. The idea behind it is – feeding of socially engineered information packets, aiming to drill in the need/use/assimilation, as per the strategy designed by media tools. This is fed by contemporary technical capabilities, economic and administrative concentration. This converts into intentional integration and consolidation of consumers of high and low art, originally separated for thousands of years, over time-gap.

Thus, although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed. On this context, the masses are not primary, but secondary. They are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would like to have us believe, not its subject but its object (Rabinbach & Adorno, 1975).

Application of Cultural Hegemony in relevant times

T. J. Jackson Lears defined the concept of cultural hegemony by analyzing relationship of proletariat and bourgeoisie in capitalist society. Lears (1985), expands upon Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) "consent given by the great masses... [to]...the dominant fundamental group”( p.568). It speaks of agreement by masses to get manipulated by production of infused consumption. He deduced it as dual consciousness at work – one from the consumer side (masses), and other from producer’s territory (industry, strikes, factory takeovers, mass movements).

From a media perspective, Antonio Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, (1971) says – The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the Man of Letters, the philosopher, and the artist. Therefore, [such] journalists… regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals.... [This] no longer consist[s] of eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but [is] in active participation in practical life, as constructor [and] organizer, as "permanent persuader", not just simple orator (pp. 9–10).

Cultural Industry Reconsidered – its implications

When the relationship between the mass society and cultural industry is described, society is considered in regards to the culture industry as "not its subject but its object" (Adorno, 1963). Meaning to say, the mass media acts as a standard all by itself, and governs the produce for the choice less audience who will consume whatever is served, thus resulting in eternal sameness, or passivity, or repetitive generative, as emphasized by Antonio’s ‘The masses are not the measure... of the industry’ phrase.

Brand endorsing strengthens the audience mind-change, and celebrities endorsing such products tend to manipulate the mindset and formative community practices. Says P. David Marshall in ‘Tools for the Analysis of the Celebrity as a Form of Cultural Power’ (1997), ‘culture industry is re-presenting aspects of the personality […] in the exchangeable commodity form of the celebrity’(p.55).

Convergence of Culture and New Media Technologies in Media Practices

Before focusing on media convergence in today’s times, it is appropriate to reflect on Main’s concept of human behavior. Main, M. (1990) explodes on the concept that ‘the man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him’. Contrary to Kant’s formalism of conscious consumption, the culture industry robs the individual of his function, and retains the power of schematizing on audience’s behalf. Hence, depending upon the behavioral adaptation, individuals use natural selection to reach the same biological ends in differing ways depending upon their circumstances.

Advent of Convergence culture

In 2000, Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin took up a research on ‘Remediation: Understanding New Media’. They arrived at a very right conclusion that emerging technology replicates earlier media technology through the prisms of “hypermediacy” and “immediacy”, thereby replicating and enhancing the abilities of its predecessors.

Eight years later, in 2008, Bruns, Axel wrote about ‘Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage’. A variety of sites of convergence culture vis-à-vis ‘hybrid identity of producer’ were critically analyzed. It was concluded, digital technology complicates the distinctions between consumer and producer.

Eventually, in 2013, Jenkins et al, critiqued upon of Spreadable Media. They researched on benefits of media platforms and its translation into values and meanings through Networked Culture. They arrived at the hypotheses that social dynamics, traditional distributors, and networked technology – make it possible for digital culture to spread across Internet.

Trends in New Media Technologies

Today, digital media has changed the relationship between institutions and their patrons, governments and their citizens, and storytellers and their audiences. Central focus is on interaction and networking, unlike the earlier “infusion technique” of consumption. Feedback is the crucial factor in new media. Marketing and messaging strategy have moved a notch higher, and propaganda is at its peak. Nevertheless, approach targets are designed to entice people to interact with companies and organizations, seek information, join the thread of conversation, and “take charge” of their lives through the capabilities of digital devices.

 In new-age convergence culture, the demarcations between work and leisure, professional and amateur, and artist and audience have almost vanished. The stress is on exploring potentials and limitations of interactivity, immediacy, and interconnectedness.


The three articles have thrown light upon the practices in culture industry. Insights have been gained on the media influence on audiences, then and now. The techniques of yester years have been appropriately modified and adapted from time to time, in spreading propaganda at social, political and mass media level.

Latest trend of social engineering works in tandem with practices of mass deception and cultural hegemony. Yet, transparency of digital medium has opened the closed loop, and resulted in changes on democracy, including the status of journalism, the ability to organize social movements, and interactive algorithms.

Caveat is – there is a loss of privacy in the new age, as threat to privacy and surveillance warns of the darker side of networked technology, which are a by-product of ‘marriage of mass media with Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things.’

It can be concluded that ‘The Culture Industry’ propagated by Adorno and Horkheimer; Lears’ ‘Cultural Hegemony’; and selected essays on Mass culture – together act as the foundation for evolution of trends in today’s times. Through the journey of times, many practices have been refined; and some practices, have been appropriately outdated.


Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, (2000), Cambridge, MA: MIT, Retrieved from

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage, Digital Formations 45, New York: Peter Lang, (2008),

Durham, Meenakshi Gigi., Kellner, Douglas. M., Media and Cultural Studies, (2006), Blackwell Publishing,

Gunster, Shane., Revisiting the Culture Industry Thesis: Mass Culture and the Commodity Form, (2000), Retrieved from

Jenkins, Henry., Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, New York: New York University Press, (2013),

Lears, Jackson T. J., The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities, The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (Jun., 1985), pp. 567-593, Oxford University Press, Retrieved from

Lin Chao-Chen, Convergence of new and old media: new media representation in traditional news, Chinese Journal of Communication, (2013), pp. 183-201, Retrieved from

Main M: Cross-Cultural Studies of Attachment Organization: Recent Studies, Changing Methodologies, and the Concept of Conditional Strategies. Human Development (1990),

Marshall, P. David., Tools for the Analysis of the Celebrity as a Form of Cultural Power,  (1997),

Mignolo, W., Colonial and Postcolonial Discourse: Cultural Critique or Academic Colonialism? Latin American Research Review, (1993) pp. 28(3), 120-134. Retrieved from

Theodor W. Adorno & Anson G. Rabinbach, Culture Industry Reconsidered, New German Critique, No. 6 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 12-19,

Tussey, Ethan, Digital Media and Convergence Culture, (2017),

September 11, 2023

Culture History

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